Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. When the ensuing storm surge breached levees, the category-3 tempest became the nation’s costliest natural disaster and one of its deadliest hurricanes.
More than 1,800 people died in the nightmarish conditions that followed.
Redding resident Doris Hughes, who turned 83 earlier this month, lived through the storm and its harrowing aftermath. A fifth-generation New Orleans resident until she left for California as a 19-year-old Navy bride, she had moved back to the city of her roots 10 years earlier as a widow.
She speaks in nostalgic detail about the three-bedroom, one-story brick house on a double corner lot that she lost to floodwaters during that fateful week half a decade ago.
“It was a beautiful home in a nice neighborhood,” she said. “I had lovely maple furniture and many collectibles.”
Doris, who describes herself as “very inquisitive about what’s going on in the world,” was tuned in to TV news reports about the hurricane anniversary when A News Café contacted her at her north Redding mobile home.
“They mentioned the high school that I was taken to when I was rescued from my friend’s house,” she said.
And the memories came pouring out.
Living through the horror
Despite urgings from her four children, who live in California, Doris, then 78, chose not to evacuate as Katrina headed for land.
On Aug. 29, 2005, she was checking on an 81-year-old friend, one of her neighbors in St. Bernard’s Parish, a fast-growing county southeast of New Orleans. Her friend did not want to leave his home of 35 years, and they prepared to wait out the storm.
“I had called right before and tried to get her to leave,” said Doris’s daughter Sylvanie Vines, 53, of Redding. “They’re so complacent – they get warnings all the time. They thought it wouldn’t be that bad.”
But it was.
Katrina’s winds pushed a 25-foot storm surge into the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, destroying the parish levees. Almost the entire region was flooded within minutes.
Most houses ended up with between 5 and 12 feet of water.
Doris remembers water on the kitchen floor, then looking out the window and seeing waves in the back yard. There was barely time to grab a few items as they hurried up the stairs to the attic.
“We got five feet of water in about five minutes,” she said. “I’m 5’2″ and it was up to my neck.”
The pair managed to grab a saw, rope, radio, two flashlights, a bucket and canned goods off the top pantry shelf. The attic already held gallon jugs of water and 12 feet of foam rubber padding, which Doris cut in half with the saw for sleeping pads.
For two days they suffered the heat and humidity in the attic until a man with a boat came by, plucking stranded survivors off roofs. The water had receded enough that Doris could wade outside to flag him down.
“My friend’s house was all boarded up, so they would never have known we were in there,” she said.
The two seniors were dropped off at a high school gym with hundreds of other homeless residents. For two more days, they endured overflowing toilets, water on the floor, animals sharing space with people, and water bottles but no ice.
“It was a mess,” Doris said. “There was no air conditioning. We had stacks of plywood to sleep on.”
Meanwhile, back in California, her children grew increasingly worried.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking,” Vines said. “When we heard that St. Bernard’s Parish was badly hit, we were worried. We couldn’t get hold of her. Basically, we were all trying different methods of trying to locate them.”
Suffering from bladder and toenail infections, Doris and her friend were moved to a coliseum in Lake Charles. Conditions were better; they had air conditioning, clean clothes and shoes.
“The first thing we had was a McDonald’s hamburger,” Doris reminisced. “We also got cots.”
Pictures posted by Doris’s children on the Internet finally helped them track her down. Her friend’s family came from Texas to pick them up, and Doris moved to Redding a few weeks later to be near Vines and her family. She never returned to her beautiful home, which was swamped with 8 feet of water.
“I had to start over,” she said. The only items salvaged from her house were a crystal vase, a white ceramic coffee pot (pictured in photo at top) and some jewelry her husband had given her.
Five years later
With the help of her daughter, Doris has decorated her trailer to make it “lively and cheerful” and furnished it with collectibles she finds at thrift stores. Some remind her of pieces she used to own. She purchased maple bedroom furniture – similar to what she had in New Orleans – and installed a fake fireplace.
Her friend died in Texas two years after Hurricane Katrina. “He was never the same,” she said. “I think he just gave up.”
Doris doesn’t drive, but she walks, gets together with friends and visits the senior center each week. Calling herself a “common-sense person,” she said she doesn’t dwell too much on what she’s lost.
“Things don’t mean as much,” she said. “Your life means more.”
Vines said her mother has always been a survivor. “She grew up during the Depression and had lots of hard times, but she just keeps going.”
Doris, who still speaks with a soft Louisiana accent, thought about what helped her get through the trauma of starting over when she was nearly 80.
“Being with people helps,” she said. “Being with new friends gets your mind off it. And family is very important.”
Returning to New Orleans
Doris finally returned to New Orleans not too long ago to visit an ailing brother (she was the oldest of seven siblings). But she has never considered moving back. “It’s not the same,” she said. “I didn’t feel safe there.”
In June 2005 – only two months before the hurricane – Vines and her then-16-year-old daughter visited Doris in her brick house in St. Bernard’s Parish. “I hadn’t been back in years,” Vines said. “We had a great time.”
This week, as news reports saturate the Internet, newspapers and airwaves with Katrina recollections, Doris knows she’s fortunate to have survived, noting the horrific conditions many residents endured at the Superdome.
“I feel so sorry for the people who went through that,” she said, “especially the ones who lost family.”
She smiled as she remembered the surge of generous offers she received three years ago when Doni Chamberlain-Greenberg wrote a newspaper article about her Creole cooking. Doris had lamented the loss of a favorite New Orleans cookbook and was overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers who sent notes and cookbooks.
She was quoted as saying, “It’s just so amazing to me that these good things are happening to me after something so awful. This has really turned into something else. I’m going to have a whole new life.”
-Candace L. Brown has been a magazine and newspaper journalist since 1992. She lives in Redding and can be reached at email@example.com.
Photos of Doris Hughes by Candace L. Brown.